Mellow rockers Clem Snide aren’t exactly strangers to covering interesting songs (go find their “Heat of the Moment” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” covers if you don’t believe me), but frontman Eef Barzelay recently embarked on an ambitious covers project that puts the others to shame. Last Spring Clem Snide used Kickstarter to fund an EP of Journey covers, and, as a reward for pledging $150 or more to that project, Eef promised to record any song of the donor’s request and email the recording to them. After recording 30 or so of these covers, he decided he liked them so much that some are now being offered on Bandcamp on a free/name-your-price basis.
We’ve already heard Jack White, Damien Rice, and Garbage cover U2 (here, here, and here) for Q magazine’s new Achtung Baby tribute album. Now we have three more from the album, which hit newsstands today. It’s the Killers, Nine Inch Nails, and Depeche Mode, all covering favorite tracks from the 1991 classic.
This Week on Bandcamp rounds up our favorite covers to hit the site in the past seven days.
Bad news first: We didn’t find any good covers for this post. We did, however, discover five great covers (and a bunch of mediocre-to-terrible ones). No middle ground this week. So while the average quality of everything we heard was lower than usual, our cherry-picked set may be one of our all-time favorites. Funny how it works like that sometimes.
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
There may not be an mainstream artist out there as difficult to cover as Nine Inch Nails. By its very nature, Trent Reznor’s music doesn’t offer an easy way in. Johnny Cash did it beautifully of course, but let’s be honest, “Hurt” wasn’t exactly the most abrasive song in the band’s catalog to begin with. In keeping with the Nine Inch Nails spirit, then, many (though certainly not all) of the covers below show at least some industrial influence. It’s noisy, it’s loud, and it’s strangely cathartic. Just like the original.
Johnny Cash. He was many things in life and remains many things in legacy. One of the most important figures in the history of country music; a devoutly religious rebel; a black-clad troubadour; a classical paradox of a man. Throughout his career, he was defined by songs that were, all at once, violent and mournful, steady in sound and chaotic in spirit.
Cash walked the line (pun intended) of a brilliant and tumultuous time for country music and for popular music in general – the line between standards and covers, between singers and songwriters and singer-songwriters; between rebellion and redemption. The very concept of covers emerged from the dawn of the singer-songwriters, the folks whose songs were first and foremost associated with them. Gone, in most arenas of popular music, were the songs that every artist would take on to earn their chops and pay their respects.
Country music was one of the few genres where standards held strong alongside original material and covers remained the norm, alongside blues and folk and other such tradition-based music. As the years pass, though, traditions change and musicians are faced with new challenges and questions. Does an artist keep on recording songs written by their contemporaries? Do they take on new music from musicians generations younger than them? Do they stick to the themes and styles that their reputations were built on in the first place? Many artists trembled at the challenge, many faltered; but Johnny Cash, with his American Recordings series, had one answer to all of these questions: yes.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers served as Cash’s backing band on Unchained (American II), and Petty had this to say (from an Uncut interview) of the eclecticism that came to define the American series:
It was incredible. He was an interesting artist because he’s pictured as a country artist, but he wasn’t necessarily completely in that bag, you know. I always thought of him as a folk artist. Because he knew so much about folk music. And the country that he performed wasn’t really much like any other country that you’d heard. It was an unusual thing, his bag was pretty wide.
Released over the course of just over fifteen years, including two albums released posthumously, the American series remains a landmark not only in Cash’s career and in the history of country music, but in all popular music. All at once, it was old and new, traditional and revolutionary.
For those who aren’t altogether familiar with Cash’s music (or at least his American-era music), the distinguishing track of the series would seem to be American IV’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” While there is an inescapable accuracy to the assessment, it’s a limiting view and one that could likely cause folks to miss out on the enormous variety of the series.
While “Hurt” isn’t representative of the entire series of albums, it does indeed serve as a mark of distinction. As a whole, the albums reflect on many themes – remorse and violent anger; hopelessness and hope; loss and love and longing; fear and faith. Between the canonical series and Unearthed‘s four discs of outtakes, Cash covered everything ranging from the Beatles to Bob Marley, from Simon and Garfunkel to Neil Young to Biblical hymns and timeless ballads. With the covers in the vein of “Hurt,” however, Cash attacks his classic themes in entirely new ways. He retains his distinctive sound, both vocally and instrumentally, but he lets that sound sink its teeth deep into a different kind of source material.
Cash treats the American series with something of a slow-burning approach. As it is, “Hurt” seems like a radical cover four albums into the series, but the progression to American IV and beyond it shows the greatness of Cash’s covers to be as much a matter of timing and context as anything else. This is not a statement to diminish the covers, but rather to diminish the distinction between a Cash cover and a Cash classic. There is none.
Cash’s takes on newer music (new being relative to the vast span of his career and to the genres he takes on), fitting and transformative as they may be, are not wholly representative of the American series. They capture an aspect of his work’s progression, his consistent ability to do new things after half a century of making music, but they are not alone in doing so. He approaches the work of his contemporaries and his more direct heirs with the same care and the same familiarity as he brings to the more dramatic changes.
There are certain musicians and albums that simply hit the right tone at the right time. Perhaps it’s the right moment for genre comeback; perhaps it’s the right time for the music industry to push something genuinely new; perhaps the flow of art and beauty into the world is, sometimes, simply serendipitous. Whatever the case may be for Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, their rise to success has produced some of the most incredible, truly listenable music to ever emerge from a publicity stunt.
When the duo released their epic cello battle of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” in January, they were simply two esteemed cellists looking for a bit of commercial success. When they released their cover of Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” in June, under the new moniker of 2CELLOS, they were “those guys who did that insane ‘Smooth Criminal’ cover.” But now, with the release of their self-titled debut album, they are something else entirely: brilliant.